'So Sad.' Google Exec Refuses to Commit to Independent Audit of Its Moderation Practices

By Susan Jones | July 17, 2019 | 9:08am EDT
Vice President for Government Affairs & Public Policy at Google Karan Bhatia testifies during at a hearing before the Constitution Subcommittee of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on July 16, 2019. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) - Google and its subsidiary YouTube are constructed, operated and maintained through algorithms to be "politically neutral," a company executive told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday.

But some lawmakers scoffed.

What about Google’s censorship in China? Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) asked Karan Bhatia, Google’s vice president of global government affairs and public policy.

“Why would anybody believe you now when you say we don't ever impose an ideological agenda?” Hawley asked the Google executive.

But Bhatia refused to commit to an independent, third-party audit of Google’s moderation practices, much to Hawley’s disgust. “So sad,” Hawley said.

At the start of his questioning, Hawley asked Bhatia, “You don't impose filters based on political viewpoints, that's your testimony, right?"

"It is both contrary to our mission, contrary to our business interests and it would be incompatible to the systems that we build to work political bias in there, which I think is why we've has third-party studies, including the ones that I've referenced, that demonstrate that we do not have political bias," Bhatia replied.


Bhatia agreed with Hawley that injecting political bias would be "inconsistent with our values."

"Except when you do it in China," Hawley shot back. "Right? You're happy to censor for the repressive authoritarian Chinese regime, like for instance with Google.cn, happy to censor away any mention of Tiananmen Square, happy to help the Chinese government maintain control of all information within the country, happy to help them control the information flow to their own citizens. You're happy to do all of that. Would you call that censorship with an ideological agenda?" Hawley asked.

Bhatia did not give a direct answer. Instead, he noted that Google does not offer "almost any” products in China. He said Google exited China in 2010 because “we felt that the censorship requirements thata were being applied Google were not compatible with the products that we were able to offer.”

But Google.cn did include censorship tools, Hawley noted. "Are you willing to commit today, here, that Google will not agree to participate in any form of censorship with the Chinese regime … against Chinese citizens? Will you commit to that?” Hawley asked. “You will not agree to…restrictions on data flow in China, the Chinese market?”

Bhatia dodged the question, saying he couldn't imagine what Hawley was referencing.

"So you won't block search terms for Uighurs or concentration camps or Tiananmen Square -- you won't do that in any venture going forward?” Hawley asked.

"We -- we don't,"-- Bhatia started to say.

"No, I'm not asking that," Hawley interrupted. "I'm asking if you won't -- because we know you have in the past. That's what Google.cn was.

"You know, you've contemplated it with Project Dragonfly," Hawley continued. "I'm asking you now for a commitment. I'm glad to hear you say that Project Dragonfly's been canceled. I think that's news. So that's good to hear, because there have been news reports that it's still active."

Bhatia told Hawley, "We have no current plans to go into China in the search market."

"So that's great," Hawley said. "And you're committing to me here today that you will not in the future do so, and you will not engage in censorship in China?" Hawley asked for a yes or no answer, but he didn't get one:

"What we're willing to commit to, Senator, is that any decision to ever look at going back into the China search market is one that we would take only in consultation with key stakeholders," Bhatia said.

Hawley was not pleased with Bhatia's responses.

"My point is this," he told Bhatia. "You've been more than willing to engage in ideological censorship in the largest market in the world. You have been more than happy to partner with the most repressive authoritarian regime on the planet, all for profits, whatever it is that's good for Google.

“Why would anyone believe you now, when you say you won't submit to a third party audit -- you just answered Sen. Blumenthal no to that. You won't commit to me that you won't engage in censorship when it suits your purposes in China and the Chinese market, for instance, in the future.

“Why would anybody believe you now when you say we don't ever impose an ideological agenda. What assurances can you give us?” Hawley asked.

“Senator, I think what I can tell you is that in China today we don't offer any of the products that you're referencing--” Bhatia started to say.

"No, I mean here!” Hawley interrupted. “Why would we believe anything Google says about what it does or does not do in terms of promoting an ideological agenda? We know you've done it in the past. We know you do it when it suits your bottom line. Why would we believe you now? What assurances can you give, besides your own testimony?” Hawley asked.

“Senator, I fundamentally disagree that we're doing -- you know, that these are practices for our bottom line. I will tell you that Google has, ah, a demonstrated track record of building search engines that meet the needs of consumers here and around the world. We are a trusted brand. Ah, you know, I -- I don't know what answer you're looking for,” Bhatia said.

“Well, what I'm looking for is a little honesty, and what I'm also looking for is some accountability," Hawley said, as he gave Bhatia another chance to answer a question posed earlier by Democrat Sen. Richard Blumenthal: “Will you submit to an independent, third-party audit of your content moderation practices?” Hawley asked again.

"Again, we have plenty of people looking at our content moderation practices,” Bhatia responded. “The Economist just did a yearlong study," he said, but Hawley noted that the Economist is not an independent auditor.

“It was entirely independent of Google," Bhatia said.

“So is that a yes?" Hawley pressed Bhatia. "If you're happy to do it for them -- "

"If third parties want to...look at us," Bhatia started to say.

“You'll open your books?” Hawley interrupted. “Big news we're going to make today! Is this a yes? Give me a yes!”

“No,” Bhatia said. “I’m telling you that Google's content moderation has been looked at by--”

“So sad,” Hawley said, speaking over Bhatia. “So sad.”

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